JOURNAL

Interview

02.08.22

From NZ Barista Champion to NZ MasterChef Winner

Sam Low MasterChefSam Low MasterChef New Zealand 2022 | Image credit ThreeNow MasterChef

It’s not often we talk food on Brew Methods, but when former New Zealand Barista Champion Sam Low goes on to win New Zealand MasterChef, there’s definitely lots to talk about!

 

He’s quite the buzz right now but for weeks he had to keep it all “hush hush” and patiently wait for every single episode to air on New Zealand’s ThreeNow to publicly be crowned the winner. It was an epic final showdown between runner-up Elliot McClymont, which saw them test their skills and creativity designing their dream restaurant concept consisting of an entrée, main, and dessert. There could only be one victor and Sam valiantly cooked his way to the top with his modern Chinese seafood-themed restaurant named LOW.

 

But we’ll have you know, it’s not Sam’s first rodeo. If you’ve been in specialty coffee for quite some time, there’s a good chance you already follow him or have come across his Instagram bio which once read “NZ Barista Champion.” It now has an arguably more glamorous title as NZ MasterChef 2022 Winner but it doesn’t take away the fact that Sam is a veteran of the specialty coffee industry. With over 10 years of experience as a barista, competitor, and coach, he’s managed to achieve accolades many of us would dream of.

 

Over the past few years, Sam’s transition from coffee geek to foodie has been an inspiration to watch. He’s been tapping into his roots, embracing his identity and Chinese heritage, and creating dishes that are worthy for the glory books, literally. Through his passion and hunger (pun intended), he’s earned himself an incredible new title and we’re so proud of him. We’ve always believed that the worlds of coffee and food can collide and intertwine, and Sam’s proven that.

 

We had the pleasure of chatting to him to learn more about his journey and how his career in coffee helped forge a passion for creating beautiful food dishes. You can read all about it below.

 

 

 

When did your coffee journey begin and what got you involved in the scene?

 

I’ve always had a very curious mind (maybe it’s the Aquarius in me) so when I was doing my Front of House apprenticeship after high school I was more interested in the things most people knew the least about and at the time specialty coffee was only starting to kick off in New Zealand (2010). So naturally I gravitated towards it and the more I learned about coffee the more I wanted to know. I realised the more I learned about this industry the more I didn’t know about coffee and how complex this one particular thing could be.

 

 

 

When did you first get into coffee competitions and what was the motivation? Have you always had a hunger for competitions? 

 

Ever since taking catering and hospitality classes in high school my teachers quickly picked up that I was very passionate about this industry. They would always encourage me to do activities revolving around Food & Beverage such as entering me in cooking and coffee competitions, I was about 16 years old at the time.
This seeded a love for competitions as it was a proof to myself that I can achieve anything if I put my mind to it. It also to pleased my Asian parents whenever I did well in a comp, especially bringing home a little medal.
Throughout my two and a half year food & beverage apprenticeship after high school and early on in my coffee career, I would enter throw downs and head along to coffee championships before entering them myself. 

 

 

Sam Low Latte Art Flat WhiteSam Low pouring a flat white | Image credit Sam Low

 

 

 

When did the food journey begin and when did you become passionate about cooking?

 

From as early as I can remember my parents owned and operated cafes, takeaways and a noodle factory in Fiji. When we migrated to Auckland, New Zealand my parents opened up businesses doing what they know best to survive and trying their best to obtain citizenship. When in Auckland, they owned a Dairy (a convenience store selling fruit, veg and essentials) and Polynesian focused takeaways with a majority of the customer-base being pacific islanders.
As young as 14, I remember helping dad on the woks cooking food for the hot food cabinets in the takeaways and helping mum wrap wontons and dumplings for the shop.
Initially it was always just watching mum and dad, however it wasn’t until I did Catering and Hospitality Class (a course in high school) where I had teachers believing in me and would sign me up to coffee and cooking competitions. This is where the interest in food was seeded, not so much from a survival perspective but more from an interest.
From when I was about 25 I really looked into my cultural heritage and started embracing Chinese food and fusing everything I’ve learned about food and letting that become my artistry of expression.

 

 

 

Is there an underlying love for all things culinary/hospitality?

 

Absolutely! A deep love, almost too annoying for a lot of my friends as I would over explain or analyse everything, ha-ha. In turn they’re all coffee and food snobs now, so you’re welcome! 

 

 

Sam Low MasterChef New ZealandSam Low Cooking on MasterChef New Zealand | Image credit ThreeNow MasterChef New Zealand

 

 

 

Have your previous achievements in coffee helped you excel in your food journey?

 

Largely so! Spending over 12 years in the specialty coffee industry has given me a great appreciation for terroir (growing conditions affecting flavour), I got to understand flavour from a very scientific and objectified vocabulary which in turn helped me appreciate other ingredients more. It really got me thinking about why they taste the way they do and how different quality of ingredients are achieved whether it be from processing or the origin it’s from.
It has gotten me into appreciating ingredients and utilise flavour balance more.

 

 

 

How do these two worlds collide for you (coffee and food)?

 

Coffee gets me out of bed and is the thing I genuinely look forward to the most everyday. It fuels me for the next thing which usually is something food related. Food is my art and purpose.
It’s a co-dependent cycle where I need both to function.

 

 

 

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learnt along the way?

 

Culture is fluid and tradition is what you believe it is, not others.
Living your truth is the most powerful thing you can do and it feels so good.
Also each to their own for both food and coffee. Down with snobbery! haha

 

 

Sam Low Pour Over CoffeeSam Low brewing a Hario V60 | Image credit Sam Low

 

 

 

What advice do you have for aspiring barista champions and MasterChefs?

 

These will apply for both, do what feels right to you however it’s important to ask for help and advice. It’s never a one person show for anything.
Stay curious and open-minded, more often than not you’ll learn something new from every person you encounter.
Try new things all the time! Whether it be a new coffee origin or a food ingredient you’ve not cooked with before. Try it! The larger your food index and taste memory the better.
lastly find your community, fellow coffee enthusiasts or foodies. If non? Start one!

 

 

 

How has winning MasterChef NZ 2022 changed your life?

 

It really just opened up so many more doors for me to have a voice for the things I believe in.
It has allowed me to amplify my voice and to have the representation I wished I had when I was younger and hoping this would encourage people like me to embrace their truth and use it as power and drive.

 

 

Sam Low MasterChef New ZealandLow. Modern Chinese | Image credit ThreeNow MasterChef New Zealand

 

 

 

What’s your go-to cuisine both dining and cooking?

 

When dining out it’s either a small Mum-And-Pop Shop selling traditionally prepared regional cuisine OR it’s fine dining degustation’s with wines to match, not really into the in-between so much.
When cooking it’s different depending on the occasion, if it’s for friends my crispy pork belly or red BBQ pork (Charsiu) is a crowd favourite. I love broths, wontons and dumplings as these are so comforting and nostalgic for me.

 

 

 

And lastly, what’s planned for the future?

 

For now I want to focus on my cookbook deal that was part of my prize for winning MasterChef. I want to create something I think resembles a lot of the hard work I’ve put into my food career so far.
I would love to do more media-related work around food, culture and identity as I truly believe representation matters.

 

 

 

Thank you Sam Low.

 

If you’re interested to watch Sam in action yourself, you can stream every episode on New Zealand’s ThreeNow. 

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